The surgeon’s words resonated as if the room had walls of metal. Red face, tight eyes, struggling authority. I didn’t want to be him almost as much as I didn’t want to be me. “Ms Petrovic, I am very sorry. You have breast cancer.”

Infinite hole, stranglehold. Choking. No pain or tears, just a feeling of falling desperately fast. “This can’t be. This can’t be”, I remember saying. The archetypal movie scene was actually happening to me.

Cancer. There is a definitiveness and an Antarctic chill to the word. It steals your calm and sense of reason. It is terrifying. And if the fear doesn’t drive you mad, the waiting will – waiting for news, waiting for test results, waiting for more specifics. When a bit of calm and reason begins to return you can begin to digest the diagnosis and its implications. It feels like eating wet cardboard with a sprinkling of pepper.

Six weeks after my diagnosis, I had surgery to remove my left breast, a mastectomy. During the same operation, a plastic surgeon cut a flap in my left chest muscle and inserted a silicone implant – my bionic boob. I woke up from the anesthesia in my hospital room thinking “I am still alive, great!”. A rush of positivity came as well, even though I could barely move and it looked like I had stuffed a ball under my shirt.

This positivity became my engine over the following days, as I slowly weaned myself off pain medication, and learned how to use my left arm for simple daily actions like pushing a button or picking up a coffee mug. Lifting my arm overhead was not possible during the first 6 weeks, so I learned creative ways of dressing and undressing. Sleeping required many pillows and folded towels to prop me up. I went on one, then two, then three daily walks from the first day I got home. It was the beginning of spring. A cacophony of springtime sounds left me feeling happy and somehow at peace each time I walked.

When this illness first struck, one of my main concerns, apart from “how can I beat this thing and stay alive”, was “will I be able to move like I did?”. I have been a movement professional my entire adult life. I was a professional dancer and choreographer from my early twenties to my mid thirties, and somewhere along the way, at the urging of a dance colleague, I trained to become a Pilates teacher. My personal identity has always been strongly intertwined with my ability to move. The plastic surgeon had some statistics but nobody was able to tell me if I would be able to ever do Pilates at an advanced level again. This was for me to find out. And regarding handstands – one of my favorite activities – the surgeon said “probably not.”

Eleven days after surgery I lay on a mat at Smartbody studio and tried to make “Angels in the Snow” with my arms. My left arm had about 25% the range of motion of my right. If I tried to pick it up off the floor, I could only do it if I bent my elbow first. No lying on the belly, off course, and zero weight-bearing. So I breathed, stretched my hamstrings and hips and tried not to rush myself.

. . . regarding handstands – one of my favorite activities – the surgeon said “probably not.”

Within about three weeks of regular training, I could do beginning level series, carefully loading my arms with a tiny amount of body weight (quadruped) and light spring resistance on the Reformer and Cadillac. Soon after, I cautiously added inversion exercises, like to Rollover and Short Spine to my movement routine.

I was experiencing what so many of my injured clients have experienced – that Pilates, with its detailed gradations of forces, emphasis on dynamic stability, varied relationships to gravity, and gentle coaxing of range of motion, is wonderful physical therapy for the whole body. I knew this already from the teacher’s perspective. But this time, I was the one recovering.

My pectoralis major (chest muscle) was accepting a bit of weight now, but it didn’t like being stretched. I continued to work on slowly restoring the range of motion in my shoulder and upper spine, and added twisting and side bending. Eventually, my pectoralis began to accept stretches until finally, after six weeks of training I was able to bring my left arm overhead. This was a breakthrough moment – my confidence was back.

At three months, I was back into advanced waters with weight-bearing exercises like Long Stretch, Long Back Stretch and Control Front. At four months I returned to running, and took up swimming as well. At four and a half months, with full shoulder mobility recovered and dynamic support in my entire torso I could finally do a handstand. When I told the surgeon he spontaneously high-fived me. That was a very, very happy day.

One year out, I am still working on it. There have been many ups and down to treatment and recovery. But the mental and physical practice of Pilates is one of the constants that has pulled me though.